Fed-up with creating different meals for each member of the family? You’re not alone! An Australian survey says 1 in 2 toddlers refuse to try new foods at least half the time. And then there are the fussy teens and adults ... If you can relate, read on.
Kids who won’t eat new foods
It’s normal for toddlers and children to go through a stage of refusing food. Kids don’t have control over many things in their lives, but they can, to some extent, control what they eat. A fight over food can often be a child’s way of exercising their rights and not an aversion to the food itself.
It’s important to remember that children will not willingly starve themselves and that fussy eating is unlikely to lead to long-term growth or nutritional problems. But get on top of it early to save yourself years of future angst.
Refusal doesn’t equal dislike
Children frequently reject new foods when first offered. This is usually not because they don’t like it, but because it is different to anything they have experienced before. They’re not used to the taste, texture and smell.
Do: Keep trying. One study found that kids increase their liking for, and consumption of, vegies after being asked to taste them every day for two weeks.
Introduce ‘lumpy’ foods early
Researchers at Bristol University in England have discovered that delaying your baby’s introduction to lumpier foods may contribute to fussy eating habits later on. They found that infants who were introduced to lumpy solids after the age of nine months ate less of many of the food groups at age seven (including all 10 categories of vegetables and fruit) than those introduced to lumpy foods at ages six to nine months. It was also reported that the seven-year-olds had more feeding problems.
Do: Try to expose your baby to a wide variety of lumpy or chewy foods between the ages of six and nine months.
Aim for the ‘Rule of 10’
Studies show it can take 10 or more attempts before a new food is accepted, but 53 per cent of Australian parents with fussy eaters will give up offering a new food if the child has not accepted it after only two or three attempts.
Do: Offer a small amount frequently; they’ll eventually get used to the flavour and texture.
Pair new foods with old faves
Can you trick a child’s palate by pairing new foods with flavours they already love? Researchers tested this idea by giving kids a choice of two kinds of chips: one familiar, one new. In addition, some children were also offered a familiar chip dip; others were offered an unfamiliar chip dip. The kids who had access to the familiar dip were more likely to try tasting the new chips.
Do: Try adding a new vegie to their most-liked vegetables or favourite meal.
Keep emotions under wraps
Kids are good at sensing feelings. If you worry too much, it will show.
Do: Work hard on controlling emotions; if you appear not to care, then there’s nothing for a child to gain by being fussy. Just be careful not to overpraise good behaviour; this can have the same effect as showing concern about not eating.
Offer one new food at a time
A study has found a link between the number of different fruits and vegetables that parents bring home and their infants’ willingness to eat them, but offering new foods too quickly can backfire, particularly with very young kids.
Do: Allow time for each food to become familiar before moving on to something new, and offer only one new food at a time.
Make new foods fun to eat
Young children are attracted to different colours and shapes. They also love to play with their food and this is an important part of food acceptance.
Do: Give them finger foods – they’re a good choice; try different colours and shapes to maximise attractiveness and appeal.
Resist the urge to cave in
If a child learns that you will eventually give up and feed them what they want when they refuse a food, they’ve gained the upper hand. Their fussy eating will continue and your battles with food will be ongoing.
Do: Be firm, but gentle, and stick to a 'eat this or nothing' policy. Missing a meal occasionally will not harm a child and is more likely to teach them better eating habits for the future.
Wait out the fussy stage
Remember the age you grew out of your fussiness? It’s quite likely your kids will follow a similar pattern. When researchers at University College London examined the eating habits of 5390 pairs of twins aged 8 to 11 years old, they found aversions to trying new foods to be 78 per cent inherited and only 22 per cent environmental.
Do: If you are an adult and still a fussy eater, take heart, you can influence biology: research shows your children will follow your eating habits, so make them good ones.
“My kids used to only drink water – until they started school. All of a sudden, they insisted on fizzy drinks, milkshakes and cordial! I got around this by introducing ‘special smoothies’ made of fruit and a bit of vanilla yoghurt and skim milk. Now, they’re getting a dose of calcium and at least one serving of fruit for their afternoon tea.” Maria Vaxevanis, NSW
Kids who won’t eat vegetables
Since vegetable flavours are very different to the sweet flavour of milk that young children are familiar with, it’s not surprising that vegetables are not immediately accepted when first offered. Like all new foods, this takes time. Putting in the effort at the beginning however, will pay huge dividends in the long run!
Less is best
Placing a mountain of food on your child’s plate is likely to overwhelm them. Serve smaller helpings of food instead – they’re more likely to taste and enjoy each component of the meal that way.
Make vegetables attractive
Try serving bright vegie sticks on a platter with hommous as a snack or mini meal; or pile grated vegetables into colourful stacks or cut them into fun shapes.
Grow a vegetable garden
Studies suggest that kids eat more fruits and vegetables when the produce is home-grown. The more children are involved positively with vegetables, the more receptive they will be to them.
Involve kids in food preparation
While you’re preparing a meal, encourage them to help you peel, chop and grate vegetables. It has been shown that the more kids are involved in food preparation, the better their eating habits will be.
Be careful about your messages
If you pressure children to eat their vegetables, they may develop the belief that eating them isn’t an enjoyable task. One observational study reported that kids who were pressured to eat consumed fewer fruits and vegetables and more unhealthy snacks.
Another study found that when soup was given to a group of children, with some pressured to finish it while others weren’t, the ones who weren’t pressured ate significantly more soup and made fewer negative comments. If your child isn’t hungry, calmly take the meal away and re-offer something to eat when hunger is next expressed. In the meantime, resist the urge to fill them up with less healthy foods.
Be a good role model
Children classified as neophobic – those unwilling to try new foods – often have mothers who are also reluctant to try new foods, according to new research published in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition. But when children see others enjoying a food, they’re more likely to try and enjoy it themselves. Fill your meals with vegetables and demonstrate your enjoyment.
Studies have shown that kids are more likely to accept a new food – even if it’s bitter or sour – when their first experience with it involves sweetness. One study found that young children lost their aversion to bitter grapefruit juice if it was initially mixed with extra sugar; while researchers involved in another study found that kids reported an increased liking for unsweetened vegies after first eating sweetened vegies on a number of occasions. Try serving vegetables with a familiar, yummy condiment like hommous, sweet chilli sauce or tomato sauce.
During the teen years, there is greater susceptibility to messages about body image and an increasing desire for independence – food choices can suddenly become statements of personal expression. A study of 8900 children conducted by the University of Copenhagen found that teens’ changing food choices aren’t just a matter of personal preference: at age 13–14, taste buds actually change, becoming more sensitive to sour tastes and less enthused about very sweet flavours.
Eat together as a family
Involve teens in menu planning and use each meal as an opportunity to showcase delicious, healthy food. Teens who eat regularly with their families are more likely to consume fruit and vegetables than those who don’t.
Discuss nutrition regularly
Link healthy eating to being a fit and healthy person, and sporting and intellectual performance, rather than less tangible benefits such as longevity and health.
Don’t get emotional
Like young children, teenagers’ food choices are often an assertion of their independence. If they decide to adopt a vegetarian or vegan diet, it’s important you avoid pressuring them to eat meat – you’ll only strengthen their resolve. Instead, look on the bright side: research findings published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association have found that teenage vegetarians tended to eat a healthier diet and be at a healthier weight than their meat-eating counterparts.
It’s important to monitor their eating behaviours: the same researchers also found vegetarians were more likely to report engaging in more unhealthy weight-control behaviours, including binge eating, taking diet pills, inducing vomiting or abusing laxatives.
Get them into the kitchen
This encourages a love of food. Even if they won’t eat what you prepare, they will eat what they prepare. Hand them a copy of Healthy Food Guide and let them choose the recipes – this will give them the sense of independence they are usually looking for.
Organise their morning
Make sure they’re all ready to go in the morning, then they will have time to sit down for a healthy breakfast.
Model good eating habits
In February 2009, University of California’s Center for Health Policy Research released a new policy brief, which stated that adolescents are more likely to eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables if their parents do. To improve your teen’s diet, they recommend examining your own because improving yours will have a flow-on effect.
Only buy healthy food
That way, if they want less healthy food items, they’ll have to spend their own money to buy them.
Suggest a dinner party
There’s nothing like having a few peers to impress. Letting teens take responsibility for not only their own dinner, but that of their friends’, will encourage them to take a big interest in food they prepare. As a bonus, you’ll know exactly what they’re up to on the night of the dinner party!
Prepare their lunches
Prepare their lunch. Most teenagers don’t. By doing this for them, you hopefully create a healthy lunch habit that will stay with them for life. As most teenagers carry a backpack, you can also encourage them to carry a healthy snack kit. Fresh fruit, bags of nuts and dried fruit, cereal bars and unflavoured popcorn are all good candidates here.
Set some reasonable rules
If ice-cream, for example, is only allowed when eaten with fruit, you’re creating both a reasonable compromise and a healthy food association that’s likely to become a life-long habit.
Keep a fruit bowl on the bench
Many studies have shown that having fresh, colourful fruit that’s quick and easy to eat in an accessible place will increase fruit consumption. And make sure the kids see you eat it.
Adults can be just as difficult as children when it comes to sabotaging healthy eating. An all too familiar story is the woman who puts her own likes aside because the man in her life likes ‘plain’ food and doesn’t want to eat ‘rabbit’ food. Or he doesn’t consider a meal complete without a large slab of meat.
Whatever your situation – there are also seniors who are finicky about what they eat, but need to improve their diet for medical reasons – you’ll benefit from the advice on children and teenagers, and these tips may also help:
Make a meal deal
Prepare a favourite dish of his one night if he agrees to eat a favourite of yours the next night.
Encourage a health check
A GP warning of the risk of high cholesterol or high blood pressure can have more effect than anything you can say or do at home. Like children, adults that are involved in food preparation are more likely to have better food habits.
Make changes gradually
Slowly reduce the size of the meat portion in a stir-fry or casserole and at the same time increase the amount of vegetables. If they refuse skim milk, try diluting half-empty full-cream milk bottles with the lower-fat skim milk. The flavour will be more like they’re used to. Try topping salads with meat, fish or chicken. Once this form of salad becomes acceptable, the way is paved for all types of salads!
Don’t go to extremes
Expand food horizons by making small changes to what is already comfortable and liked. Adding in lentils to beef patties or Bolognese sauce (and ‘forgetting’ to mention it) will have better results than presenting a new dish full of foreign tastes and textures.
Foods kids hate
Research conducted by University College London surveyed 200 families with twins aged 4–5 to see if food preferences were dictated by genes. The top five foods kids hate are: